'National party let everyone down,' says Labour MP Alex Sobel

A Labour MP who bucked the trend to significantly increase his majority in the December General Election has said the national party “let us down and let everyone down”.

Alex Sobel on election night. Photo: JPI Media
Alex Sobel on election night. Photo: JPI Media

Reflecting on the election results of December 12, Alex Sobel - who was reelected in Leeds North West with a 10,749 majority - said it had been a “terrible night” but he identified a number of problems with Labour’s campaign nationally, which he thinks contributed to such a devastating loss.

Speaking to Pod’s Own Country, The Yorkshire Post’s political podcast, Mr Sobel said: “It's not simple and a lot of people actually are coming out with really kneejerk simple answers and they aren't needed.

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“The first reason actually isn't recent and isn't the fault of any Labour leader individually, or Labour nationally at any one time, but over the last 40 years,the fact that our towns, our Northern and Midlands towns and in Scotland and in Wales, and in certain other parts of the country in the southwest, for instance, used to have industries, big industries that lots of people were employed in.

“And those jobs were generally although tough jobs, hard jobs, those were jobs you could get when you left school, got an apprenticeship to the job. There was a job for life, you'd get a pension, you knew the pay would be fair, although maybe not great. You knew the potential progression. But now those same towns, those jobs don't exist and the jobs that replace them - if there are jobs to replace them - are quite different.”

He said now people were often on zero-hour contracts, with precarious jobs, potentially in the service economy, and he said: “And those communities didn't feel that Labour has an answer to that.”

But he said along with more long-running issues, the campaign nationally was “very poor”.

He said campaign literature was not sent out by the national party until after postal votes had been received - particularly damaging in Leeds which had the highest proportion of postal votes in the country.

“So the national Labour Party took that on, we could have done it individually but we trusted that they would do it right,” he said.

“But the national party let us down and everybody else down. Our communication arrived six days after the postal votes arrived.”

And he also addressed Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s role in the election loss - but said this was not contained to just one side of the European Referendum voters, which many in the party have put the loss down to.

He said: “I think this is a big area of contention within the party, Jeremy Corbyn wasn't popular on the doorstep with a lot of people.

“And the older the people got, the less popular he became. People talk about leavers, remainers, he was not popular with people whether they voted leave or remain, whether they wanted to leave the EU or remain the EU for different reasons.

He added: “Remain voters were mainly angry about his position on Brexit, leave voters had that but also had many other things. I don't really want to go through another election ever in my life where people shout about the IRA at me from the house and chase me out of the garden, that is not a pleasant experience.”

He also dismissed the reasoning that the media focusing on Mr Corbyn had lost Labour the election.

Although he felt Mr Corbyn had been damaged by press reporting, he added: “But the media is the media, the media can't report something really that isn't there because then they'll have to go to court and pay out a lot of money. So they can only report what's there.

“And if you give the media a little chink then they'll utilise it. So you have to be wise to that in politics.”

But one of the biggest problems, Mr Sobel said, has been the party’s manifesto, which he felt did not paint a vision for what life under a Labour government would be like.

“Now the manifesto had lots of good ideas in it,” he said.

“There are a lot of issues and a lot of challenges that need to be overcome. And the manifesto had lots of answers to those challenges. But the problem was that if you put them all together, people didn't feel it was cohesive and didn't feel it was deliverable, certainly not in one Parliament.”

Focusing on the policy to provide free broadband to every household, he said: “On the basis of it, that sounds like a good idea.”

“However, people didn't believe it was possible. And nobody had been talking about it until it was announced by the Labour leadership in the election.

“Policy like that you have to talk about it for two to three years. You have to have that argument. You need to have that public debate.

“You need to be on TV and in the newspapers making the case for it, and staring down the camera with James Cleverly or whoever arguing the other side. That's what we did on rail, the majority of people in this country have been very supportive of bringing rail into public ownership.”

He added: “People need, during an election campaign, to imagine in their mind a country that's created by the next government. The best example of this is Clement Attlee in 1945. Clement Attlee, created a vision in people's heads of what a postwar government would do for them and their families and the country.

“And this obviously has not been a war, but there's been this big change in the country, and we did not do that. And that is our challenge for the next election. We need to be able to do that.

“The Tories had a very simple message. They wanted to get Brexit done. They also had a range of policies, which actually a lot of them aren't things that I disagree with. I just don't think they go far enough. And I don't think they would meet the challenges the country has.

“But some of them would improve things, it is a mixed bag, but people understood that they were deliverable.”

But not all was lost for Labour, Mr Sobel felt.

In his own constituency he put his success down to grassroots activism which outweighed the failures of the national party. His majority increased from 4,224 to almost two and a half times that figure.

He said: “My constituency isn't typical, in a lot of ways, but I think there's a number of different stories to tell.

“My election campaign started on June 9, 2017. And very early, I decided what I wanted to do locally, how I - from a both practical and principle point of view - would take on national issues, and I kept to that, for the entirety of my time and communicated that very strongly to constituents.

“I worked very hard, I undertook more surgeries, did more case work than any previous MP, worked in the community. I think all of that helps.

“But also we had a very high Liberal Democrat vote with my predecessor [Greg Mulholland] a Liberal Democrat. The Liberal Democrats didn't do any of that. They brought a candidate [Kamran Hussain] in from outside the area who just ran a very negative campaign against me. So his whole campaign was saying that I was absent. I was ineffective. I was basically a terrible MP.

“And it was seen through and the Liberal Democrat vote collapsed, partly to me but also partly to the Conservatives.

“Now it's a seat that is going to be contested in future between Labour and the Conservatives, not between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. And so in some ways, it isn't that dissimilar to other parts of the country. The Conservative vote increased, there was a swing to the Conservatives. What was unusual was there was also an increase in the Labour vote.”

Looking forward, he felt Labour needed to do more of the community work he and his team had employed in Leeds North West.

He said: “I think we need to be much more rooted in communities. I think that the communities won't see the sort of improvements that they need. They might feel that they've been promised things that won't be delivered.

“We are still by far the largest party in this country and we are growing, our membership is growing again, which is always what happens after we lose an election - and sometimes after we win one as well - and those people if they want to see a Labour government need to get in, get involved with us, not so much on social media, or by going and chatting to their friends, but actually in the community, and we need to show real practical action and what Labour is.

“But we also need to have a much deeper analysis of what the country needs, and then how we're going to deliver it. Not at a macro scale, but at a micro scale, at a town, at a community level, to be able to tell people, this is where the new jobs are going to come from, this is what where the new housing is going to go and who's going to get it, and this is where the new schools are going to go.

He added: “I think that if we don't do that if we are a party in the air rather than on the ground, then I don't think we'll win the next election.”

And he warned leadership candidates, and his fellow MPs, to take the race to become the next head of the party seriously.

He said: “The most important thing about this leadership race is to not give away your support too easily. It's a mistake, actually, in previous leaderships that MPs have given away their support too easily. And it's like a beauty contest. This isn't a beauty contest. This is about the future of our country.

“My challenge is they all need to get better and they will need to be able to offer more of themselves and of their vision.

“I think actually my reflection on this is that lots of MPs might make a nomination to get somebody into the race, who they may not end up supporting at the end.”